Saturday, 4 October 2008

Do Humans have Limits?

Can human's improve for ever? Can we keep running faster, jumping higher, throwing farther? Or is there a limit to our improvement? I saw this interesting chart in the Economist a few weeks ago that showed that while the men's 100m sprint time has improved by 9% in the last 100 years, the swimming 100m time has improved by 28%. Given human limits, we would expect the record curves to start flattening out as time goes (asymptotic for you math geeks), but it appears the running times will stop improving long before the swimming times. Why is that?

Lets first try to get a grip on why running times have improved so far. Apart from more scientific training, commercial and sponsorship opportunities have afforded athletes to become dedicated professionals. They can hire mental and physical coaches, physiotherapists, form trainers and depend on video analysis. Also, athletes can relax about their economic well being and focus on their "job", while even previous greats like Jesse Owens had to resort to racing horses to make money.

So while improvement in running appears primarily due to physical conditioning, plummeting swimming records seem to owe much more to vastly better understanding of bio-mechanics and human hydrodynamics. Swimmers are now coached to take longer strokes and to stay under water longer after turns. Technological progress like the new LZR Speedo suit seems to have contributed its share too. The answer to why we can improve more in swimming than running might just be the product of our evolution. We simply have more to learn about how to swim than about how to run.


Anonymous said...

You rock!!!


Anonymous said...

Good article !

Not as many people been exposed to swimming at grassroots level .As exposure to the sport widens globally -we may get future record breakers from unexpected places.In Beijing 2008, a Kenyan swimmer (!)- Dunford briefly broke Michaels Phelps 100m butterfly record from 2004 only to be outdone by a Serbian a few minutes later in the next heat who was eventually outdone (just !) by Phelps in the final.

Sunir R

Anonymous said...

Mind you with all the financial benefits of breaking a world record multiple times ,I think we are going to see the 100m sprint times come down several times in suitably small increments over the next few years courtesy of Usain -and then we will finally have an idea of how low it can really go !

Anonymous said...

Agree with the last post...Usain seems to have brought a whole new angle to the sprint. Previously it seems that taller atheletes were not the best in sprints. It will be interesting to see how low he can take it. For a follow on article, it might be interesting to know why Jamaica is so dominant in the sprints, irrespective of gender.

Anonymous said...

One point about swimming vs. running, and I am no engineer but it seems to me that there is greater drag involved in swimming compared to running -- which means that if we can reduce drag (by space -aged suits) we get more improvement. On the track, the comparable may be going to starting blocks from digging holes in a cinder track that did the big jump in times. But the drag issue is so minimal that any technological development has small improvements. Any engineers out there who have a better understanding and want to weigh in?

One other thought, breaking a "height" record a la pole vault and high jump incrementally is doable, but gauging whether you are running 9.69 or 9.68 in the 100 is virtually impossible. If the 100 record is improved incrementally, it wont be because of conscious effort on Usain's, Asafa's, Tyson's (or name your sprinter). same goes for the long jump and triple jump.

Arif Hussain